My beloved (ex) fiancé Stacy at the time was travelling to Washington D.C. for some fun. On her way there, she just happened to sit next to a very distinguished gentleman who helped her kill some of the flight time by flying. It turns out this was none other than THE Roger Wilkins! She was thoroughly impressed and purchased Jefferson’s Pillow as a way to honor and remember that meeting. It has been in my care since then, and before returning it to her, I decided to read it. This book review isn’t going to focus on whether the book is good or historically accurate ( it’s good and as much as I know it is accurate are the answers to those questions ), but rather its going to focus on what I felt and thought while reading.
A short summary of the book itself is that it starts and ends in the present, delving into the past in between these 2 bookends to find the answers that the author is seeking. The idea that the founding father’s could condone or even benefit from slavery whilst fighting it tooth and nail is an idea that is not thoroughly explored in our historical education. I think it’s a shame, because this book touches on many insights as to how that tension went on to form this nations character in ways that are still felt today. The title itself is something of a dramatic reveal as Roger tells the reader that even as a baby, Thomas Jefferson carried on a pillow borne by a black slave. It is a powerful image, and a metaphor for the often unseen and unrecognized benefit all Americans ( but especially those early Americans and in particular our Founding fathers ) received from the use of slaves from the beginning of the nation.
It shook me for a moment when I read those words: Our Founding Fathers were shaped and molded by the use of slaves for both good and ill. It was the use of slaves that permitted them time to study and internalize the ideas of freedom and politics. So on one hand we condemn their acceptance of slavery, but on the other, it is highly likely that without slaves supporting them, our Founding fathers may never have been. In a book chocked full of ideas, I think this is one of the most powerful. It recognizes that George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and all the rest of those great men were strongly influenced by the culture and norms of those times, just as we are in our time.
To me, the other thing that really stuck with me about this book is the strong sense of patriotism that book is meant to engender. It is a mediation on the idea of patriotism in the face of continued racism and bigotry in this country. The author points out these issues but firmly points out he is definitely an American. An excellent point he makes isn’t whether one sees ones’ self as an American, but how do others see us? More specifically, how would your country of ethnic origin see you? Roger answers that question by relating his experience going back to Africa. He notes that standing on the street corner, he was so indelibly marked as an American, that a random white lady came up to him and struck up a conversation with him about what state he came from. The experience resonated with me as I had a nearly identical feeling when I went back to Vietnam. Even if I were to lose weight, dress shabbier, and do whatever else it took to fit in, somehow I felt unrecognizably American. It was in the way I walked, the way I moved through the crowd, and even the way I stood.
I think it takes an experience like that to show how much of an American you really are. It is a common feeling these days to feel somewhat alienated from America. It is such a large stew of different opinions and thoughts that it is hard to feel part of the larger whole. That is why I really liked this book. It tackles that feeling in a way that is specific enough to be thoughtful and provoking a strong reaction with clear examples, yet broad enough for anyone to enjoy reading it. Highly recommended.